DRESSING FOR DOLLARS
A LOOK ON A STAR IS LIKE MONEY IN THE BANK–IF NOT FOR THE DESIGNERS, THEN FOR THEIR IMITATORS.
Byline: Eric Wilson / Leonard McCants / Janet Ozzard
The competition to dress celebrities doesn’t seem to be waning, despite some recent backlash toward stylists who demand big bucks just to look at a collection and the circus-like atmosphere that runs the risk of turning some designers off to the whole scene.
But if there was any doubt that the Academy Awards is mostly a fashion show, just ask knockoff king Allen B. Schwartz: He’s got some statistics that should clear that right up.
Of the six looks that Schwartz, design director for ABS, copied after last year’s Oscar ceremony, including Jennifer Lopez’s embroidered Badgley Mischka gown and a white Gucci dress with mirrored trim worn by Helen Hunt — it was Gwyneth Paltrow’s pink Ralph Lauren deb look that stole the show.
ABS sold 15,000 of them, at around $300 a “pop,” as Schwartz put it, equalling roughly $4.5 million in sales. The other five looks sold another 20,000 units combined, resulting in an estimated total business of $15 million.
“We did a big event with ABS where we did the windows, and we hired models who looked like the different actresses,” said Caroline Moss, fashion director at Macy’s East. “It was a lot of fun, and we really ran after that business. Plus, because it has been the millennium year, there has been a lot of excitement in evening dressing in general.”
It didn’t just help ABS. Retailers said that customers came into the stores after the broadcast saying, “Make me look like Gwyneth.” It did wonders for ball gown skirts and pink tops at Macy’s East, Henri Bendel, Scoop and Bloomingdale’s, to name a few.
“There has been so much more consumer interest in what actresses are wearing at the Oscars, and customers are emulating them,” said Bloomingdale’s senior vice president of fashion direction Kal Ruttenstein. He also saw a lot of Gwyneth wannabes after last year’s broadcast.
Meanwhile, while the original Ralph Lauren deb dress was created specifically for Paltrow, similar looks from Lauren’s fall 1999 collection were estimated to retail in the range of $2,000, meaning the company would have had to sell about 2,250 of them to match ABS’s numbers. Lauren’s people wouldn’t comment on the math, but took the high road, as many designers do, citing the “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” dictum.
What has become clear at the designer end of the fashion world is that dressing celebrities at awards ceremonies does have a meaningful impact on sales. Up until last year, most designers who are serious players on the red carpet scene said they dressed celebrities simply as a marketing and publicity tool; but now, more and more, they are finding that the buying public not only wants to look like their favorite celebrities, they want to dress exactly like them as well.
And retailers see an almost immediate impact. If one or two celebrities make a major hit, that will trigger a score of mini-trends: camisole tops, ballgown skirts, anything pink, hair accessories, makeup, shoes, bags.
“I watch all the awards shows, and it absolutely does have an effect,” said Stacey Kaye, fashion director at Henri Bendel. “When Jennifer Lopez wore that Versace dress at the Grammys, we had a ton of people coming in asking for floral prints. When Cate Blanchett wore her rich hippy look, we were lucky that we had lots of scarf tops and fringed skirts.”
This isn’t a new phenomenon, she added.
“I think this has been going on since Audrey Hepburn,” said Kaye. “This is the way Hollywood started. Women want to emulate stars, from the arch of the eyebrow down to the shoe. It’s the person as well that you want to emulate.”
“It does help the business,” said a spokeswoman for Christian Dior, a firm that in recent years has scored publicity coups at Los Angeles awards ceremonies by dressing celebrities in looks designed by John Galliano for its couture division, such as Celine Dion in a white backwards tuxedo and hat at the 1999 Oscars ceremony and Courtney Love in a shredded dress at the Golden Globes in January.
While these looks are one-of-a-kind and can’t be bought in Dior boutiques, they do get customers interested. The green silk gown Nicole Kidman wore to the Oscars in 1997 created a fashion image so powerful that it continues to be published in fashion magazines, three years later.
“Customers don’t want the same exact dress, but that was John’s first season designing for Christian Dior,” the spokeswoman said. “That gave him a lot of publicity for being the designer responsible for changing the look of Dior and reinventing the collection.”
While that dress was also a custom-made look, it helped fashion-conscious consumers associate Dior with Galliano’s keen skill for bias-cut dresses, which in turn boosted sales of bias looks, she said.
Another example of the indirect effect of celebrity dressing on sales is Carolina Herrera’s asymmetrical silk blouses worn with $400 corsage-like crystal-beaded orchid brooches. After Michael Michele from “E.R.” wore one to the People’s Choice Awards and actress Bai Ling wore another to the Golden Globes, Herrera noticed a clear increase in sales of similar looks from her ready-to-wear collection.
In particular, Herrera cut three orders, or about 500 pieces, of an asymmetrical blouse in white Moroccan silk for Bergdorf Goodman’s catalog that retailed for $950, representing a $475,000 sales total, and more orders are still coming in.
“When you have a star seen by so many people in the world, of course that style will influence sales,” Herrera said.
“I see a lot of impact in shoes and accessories,” said Stefani Greenfield, owner of the Scoop boutiques. “I carry Jimmy Choo, and our customers will come in and ask, ‘Do you have the Oscar shoe?”‘
Pamela Dennis also had a terrific run on a white and black separates look that Calista Flockhart wore to the 1999 Golden Globes. Plus, the look was copied by ABS, which a spokeswoman for Dennis said actually helped draw awareness to Dennis’s original look.
Through special orders, Dennis sold at least 20 of the looks — the top was $990 and the trumpet skirt retailed for $1,390 — totalling more than $47,600.
“It’s always a factor when a gown is called beautiful by the papers or Joan Rivers,” Dennis said. “The stores always call and we make it for them.”
But obviously, say the stores, the trend that a star shows will sell more than the actual outfit. Customers will come in with a photo or try to describe the outfit they are emulating. James Purcell, who started dressing celebrities for the first time at the Golden Globes, also said he felt a financial impact from dressing Jenna Elfman beyond what it cost him to get her in a gown.
“Any actress you dress, you have to look at as coming from your publicity budget,” Purcell said.
InStyle featured Elfman twice in one issue, while three similarly styled gowns sold at Barneys New York for $9,000 a piece, or $27,000 total. Entertainment Tonight also showed Elfman wearing the dress and mentioned Purcell’s name four times to an audience of 25 million people.
“How could I pay for that?” Purcell asked.
InStyle also published a picture of Leelee Sobieski in one of Purcell’s strapless silver mesh gowns with hologram tulle that retailed for $10,000 from his spring collection in its April issue, which broke two weeks ago.
Saks Fifth Avenue’s Bal Harbour store called to get the dress and several specialty stores called to buy looks from his fall line. Barneys already had six similar looks in stores that retailed between $7,000 and $9,000 apiece, of which four had sold as of Thursday, while Stanley Korshak in Dallas had bought two similar silhouettes.
“That’s why this Oscar thing is key to the business,” Purcell said. “The actress becomes an advertising vehicle for you, especially when a Jenna Elfman — who has been trashed a few times — wears a gown and gets praise for it.”
“The Oscars give designers a lot of credibility, depending on which star wears which designer,” said Greenfield. “For example, if Candace Bergen wears Michael Kors, older women will get really thrilled about Michael Kors. Or if Chloe Sevigny wears Narciso Rodriguez, there will be a lot of excitement around his name. And whatever Gwyneth is wearing is the deal.”
A spokeswoman for Halston also emphasized how strongly the firm feels about Hollywood’s effect on the fashion industry.
“We feel it’s really important. That’s why we are out here,” she said, calling from Los Angeles, where she was meeting with stylists to determine who is working with whom, and to get stars to see the collection.
“This year it’s gotten even bigger,” she said. “The competition is fierce. I know there are people out here who have never been out here before. We do intend to continue coming to this. We’ll keep plugging away.”
Even Emily Woods, president and chief executive officer of J. Crew, was in Los Angeles working on a celebrity fitting last week. “When we launched our millennium collection, we experienced the highest sell-throughs we have ever had,” Woods said, speaking of the J. Crew eveningwear looks that were launched last year.
Mark Badgley and James Mischka also said the awards have hugely benefitted recognition of the brand.
“The publicity value is tremendous in terms of how much advertising it replaces,” Mischka said.
“It’s just one of the necessary evils of the whole process,” Badgley added. “It’s fun. We’ve always said you can’t underestimate the power of celebrity dressing. It’s had a huge impact on our business at retail.”
Mischka said customers always recognize them at trunk shows for the look Jennifer Lopez wore to the awards last year.
“It’s always been funny that sportswear designers will throw in a few dresses at the end of the collection for the Oscars,” Mischka said. “The competition is so fierce that some houses send [actresses] trunks and trunks of stuff and they only wear one piece. People are getting bribed to wear dresses or getting a $50,000 check to wear a dress. That really boggles the mind.”
Randolph Duke said that when he first started working the red carpets, it was as a vehicle for deepening relationships in the celebrity realm, rather than to just hype his name.
“If you keep your head down and really try to make someone look their best — if you can achieve that, you’ve done a great service,” he said.
But as for the financial benefits his business has seen, Duke remarked, “I have yet to figure that out. It does trickle down, I guess. Every year I say that I’m not going to do the celebrity dressing thing anymore, but there is a fun crap-shoot thing going on.”
From Allen Schwartz’s point of view, the pickings are lush no matter what happens on the red carpet. Schwartz has lined up interviews with a California news station, Dutch and German television and Access Hollywood in the next week on his Oscar knockoffs.
“It’s not the celebrity that makes the dress,” Schwartz said. “It doesn’t matter if everyone looks disastrous. I only need one dress.”